At least one campus police officer pepper-sprayed a crowd protesting outside a board of trustees meeting at Santa Monica College Tuesday night after demonstrators attempted to enter the meeting room, according to witnesses.
About 30 people were treated for pepper spray, and two were transported to the hospital. No arrests were reported.
Priscillia Omon, 21, said she was standing behind a police officer when he pulled out the pepper spray and fired it in the mouths and eyes of people standing arm’s length away. She described a man next to her convulsing and spitting up foam after being hit with the pepper spray.
Roughly 200 students were involved in the demonstration, and 12 were allowed in the boardroom where officials were scheduled to discuss a controversial tiered payment program. Access to meeting was a point of contention among demonstrators, who said they requested last month that the trustees gather in a larger room to accomodate the crowd.
"The crowd was getting out of hand," said college spokesman Bruce Smith. "There was a safety issue. A couple of students had sort of broken into the boardroom. It was a judgement call and a question of safety."
Santa Monica police were not immediately available for comment.
Campus police tried to limit the number of students inside the board room to about a dozen, Santa Monica College counselor Patty Del Valle told City News Service.
The crowd assembled at the steps of the Liberal Arts building at 6 p.m. for a rally, Omon said. From there, they marched to the front of the Business Administration building, where the trustees meeting was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.
"They began without us," Omon said.
Some students, including Christine Deal, said police roughly handled many of the students in the front lines of the crowd. Deal, whose story was supported by at least two other students, said a police officer grabbed her by the neck during the clash.
A family, including a 4-year-old, were in the crowd when the officer used the pepper spray, Omon said.
A crowd of more than 100 people gathered in a hallway outside the door of a 60-person capacity room in the business building, said Omon, member of the activist group Student Organizing Committee of Santa Monica College. An overflow room with a closed-circuit video link was opened to students.
The subject of Tuesday's meeting has drawn the ire of students and professors claiming that the tiered payment plan would make in-demand summer classes -- like English, math, history and biology -- staggeringly expensive.
"The students wanted to be heard and we wanted to be in the room where we could fairly discuss this topic, and be seen by them," said Aura Chavez, 18, who was standing in the back of the crowd when the pepper spray incident happened. "We wanted to let them see how many students care about their education."
The program in question would cost $180 per unit during the summer session, up from the usual $46 per unit. That means a high-demand 3-unit course would run about $540, more than most students pay for an entire semester in the fall or spring.
"This program, only a selective few can afford that," Chavez said. "What about the rest of us?"
Demonstrators moved their protest to the Santa Monica College police department, where a few dozen people gathered outside the building.
Officials said medical bills will be reimbursed for those who required medical attention.